Gong

Cedar is drinking quietly in a dive bar in Gong, pointedly ignoring the bartender, when the demon appears like turning a corner, long blonde mane, red face, the sound of flutes. “No,” says the bartender flatly. “Get out.”

“I’m a paying customer,” the demon says, swaying.

“Absolutely not.” She reaches under the bar, comes out with a noisemaker, a long hollow stick with ridges on the side, and an abstract, glowering mask. “Leave now.” She whistles for the rest of the staff as she rounds the bar, the cooks and waiter with their own masks and noisemakers. They crowd toward the demon, circle it, growling and scraping and thumping arrhythmically.

“What the hell is this,” says the demon, hitches its nose up like an angry cat. “What are you doing? This sucks, stop this.”

Growl thumpa scrk scrk, they go, circling circling, the bartender flicks water from her bar rag in its face.

“Aaaaah, this sucks, you suck, you losers, fuck this, I’m going to take my money elsewhere, fuck this bar anyway, just stop it.

They open a path to the door, stay right on the demon as it backs away, one step forward for every step back, no ground ceded, filling the air with noise.

When the bar has settled down again and everyone’s back to their spots, Cedar leans forward. “What was that about?”

“Fuckin’ demons,” the bartender growls. “Gotta nip it in the bud immediately when one of them comes in.” She rings a silver bowl set next to the register. “Gotta shut that shit down, or they take you over and you’re a demon bar now and that’s a PROBLEM.”

Caesaria

“No, listen,” slurs Cedar, “listen.

“I’m listening,” says her barmate, with just a shade too much humor in her voice. “Go on, then!” Cedar darkly suspects her of sobriety.

“The thing you have to remember about Alcibiades—Alkibiades? oof, that can’t be right—the thing about Alcibiades was, dude was horny. He was cockthirsty.”

“Whomst among us—”

“No, I mean, seriously. Dude wanted the D. And your boy Socrates—Sokrates?—Socrates, he wouldn’t give it to him. He was a tease.”

“The philosopher?”

“Yeah, shut up, of course, that guy. Socrates—”

“The weird bald dude with the potato nose?”

Yes, are you even paying attention? Hemlock, soldier, ran for miles without breaking a sweat, corrupted the youth, jackass at parties, cocktease—”

Her barmate puts her hand on Cedar’s, and she loses complete track of what she was saying. She hopes to god it’s charming, but she’s too sweaty to say for sure and too drunk to really care.

Labrys

Cedar-Magnolia-PorterThe men had outraged them, so they rose up against them and cast them out, beyond the city walls, beyonds the fields, into the forests and the wild spaces and the mountains. Some went with them, who can say, what does it matter.

In their wake life went on much as before. Bread was baked, books were sold, cigarettes were smoked over small dark cups of potent coffee. Your hands might shake, your joints might ache: coffee like that.

Cedar comes to their city in a quiet October chasing a long dry summer. The fields beneath the city walls are dry as gold, yearning for some careless spark: she dares not smoke.

Children, children they worked out amongst themselves. It wasn’t as difficult as they’d thought. Life went on. She learns this in some crowded basement bar, squeezed between two cheerful drunks, a radio blaring politics.

It’s been a bad year for her, all roads and no rest, her stories stale, her breath bad. She drinks, laughs into her collar, pleased to listen, to take it all in. The beer is good, the room is loud and dark, she has nowhere to be. Outside they rush through the city streets, clash bronze axes on bronze shields, a time of politics and prairie fires.

Concrete

After the jobs have gone the towers remain, the wide geometric cylinders that the town is named after. Like ramparts. Everyone flows down river, for work, for people, those who can find either; the rest stay at home, growing strange, growing damp, breath sweet with moss, hair tangled with eagle’s feathers.

Cedar has been here before, or someplace as near to it as makes no nevermind. She bunks down in the ruins of an old high school, abandoned now, half converted into a false castle by someone with more time than sense. The halls are empty, and echo with the slap of possum tails and the heavy, resentful voices of crows.

She is hooking up with a townie, bones resting on bone, his eyes the vague noncolor of river water. He talks, but she hasn’t learned the language yet. She nods, smiles, gasps; he seems satisfied. They’re both someone new, something different, a brief widening of scope before summer chokes the river dry.

Hamilton

The screams rise up every evening at sunset, echoing and harmonizing off the blunt-fingered towers of Hamilton. Cedar submerges herself in them at first, then stops her ears with wax, then suffers through them, then ignores them. Days she loiters by the river, ducking back into the reeds when the children come down to the water, arms and legs frogskinned and scarred. Hidden, she listens to the rusty creak of their voices, words broken in half against shattered teeth, and wonders what they say. Hamilton speaks an interior tongue not shared with outsiders.

She trades burbots for a night’s rent, pulled gasping and fighting from the oily green ooze of the river, trades them still barbed on her hooks to her landlord. His fingers twitch and caress the metal, tease it out from their mouths. He throws the fish back to be caught, pierced, and ransomed another day.

She rises early, before the sun, to get to the river and away from the women who throng the streets at dawn, breaking their nails off bloody against streetlights, fenceposts, closed doors. They come into her room while she’s gone, men and women both, and burn themselves on her stove, stab themselves with her pens, bite hunks out of her soap. When she returns, dogged by the evening, they have set things to rights, the only testimony scars on the door and teethmarks deep in her soap.